Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed is a retired federal permanent secretary and presently the Director of Publicity and Advocacy of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF). In this interview, he speaks on the use of restructuring as a political weapon to pressure the North against 2023, the security challenges in the North and why negotiation and amnesty may be a viable option to end insurgency and banditry.
From the perspective of NEF, what is restructuring, and what is your take on the clamour for it?
I think restructuring has been abused and used as a political weapon. It has been used as a shorthand for the need to address the inadequacies, limitations, and weaknesses of the Nigerian federal system. One of the wrong things about our federal system is that we put too much emphasis on the centre. The second worst thing is that it is governed by a constitution that makes changes very difficult.
So, those who throw this restructuring around are doing so largely because they see it as a means not necessarily to achieve a major change, and there are those who believe that it should achieve short-term political goals like 2023.
So, restructuring in simple terms is a genuine, popular and legitimate demand by a large number of Nigerians to address the way the federation exists. Removed from the current context where it is being used as a means to settle scores against groups or to achieve political aims, restructuring is a very good thing for Nigeria, and it must happen before 2023.
In NEF, we accept that it must be about the Nigerian federation; it must be an inclusive process that captures the views and opinions of most parts of the country. What we don’t accept is the idea that people can use the argument for restructuring to gain an advantage over certain sections, or to fight an administration that will fight back, and in the process will lose the value of creating an atmosphere that allows us to restructure.
You can restructure Nigeria, but if it is the same political process, the same politicians, then the country is going to continue to degenerate. Why do we continue to produce low-level, low-quality leadership?
Could zoning be responsible for this?
In a way, zoning made sense in 2019 as a principle, but we don’t need to fight and kill ourselves; it’s a political decision. This is a country that is heterogeneous; it’s important for inclusiveness to be made a key point, but we should allow politicians to decide where to zone. It was a good thing that it was only the PDP that included zoning in their constitution, but even then, they’ve abused it so often that I don’t think it makes sense to even PDP.
Who governs Nigeria under our circumstances is secondary to what the person does with the power that he gets. Even those of us from the North who voted for the present president twice have paid higher a price than anybody else. So, if you say all Northerners own Buhari and therefore we have to pay the price for Buhari and have no right to field a candidate, then we ask the question, “What is a Southern candidate going to do for the North? What is the fate of the North in the hands of a candidate who emerges from the Southern part of the country using intimidation or threat?” We have paid a huge price for the incompetence of President Buhari’s administration, and if the Southern part of the country says we don’t want any Northerner to continue after 2023, we ask, “Doesn’t an election decide who will become a president?” We have a legitimate interest in who becomes president, but most importantly, whoever becomes president must not become president because their ethnic group says it’s their turn.
Do you think there is a connection between the secessionist agenda, insecurity, and 2023?
There is nothing that is not connected to 2023 under the current circumstances. If you take the secessionists, some of them have existed for a while, but it has become more pronounced now, it appears there is a demand that the southeast must produce the president in 2023. We are beginning to see secessionist tendencies from the South West: Oduduwa Republic, Igboho and Gani Adams. There are threats of the uprising in the South-South, there are crimes all over the country that seek to weaken the foundation of the Nigerian state. We had a very interesting meeting with Ohanaeze Ndigbo in Abuja and some of these issues came up.
NEF had released a statement before then where we said, by our assessment, it looks like the Igbo people appear to have made up their minds to leave Nigeria, and we advised that the country should not go to war over that, if it is the consensus of all Igbo people to leave. A big uproar was created after that and a few days later the leadership of the Igbo came out and said they denounced secession, they recommitted themselves to the unity of the country. And then we met in Abuja and the Igbo elite said there are parts of Nigeria wants to push them out, and we reminded them that an element of the Igbo community; IPOB and ESN, actually has been saying the Igbo must leave, and we didn’t hear the Igbo elite saying they are not going anywhere. They said they can’t leave a country they built, and Igbo are all over this country; which is a fact.
Given a chance to speak with the president, what will you say to him?
I will say, open up and understand the magnitude of the problem; it is huge. We have thousands of criminals armed to their teeth in our forests, cities, and highways that are daily making Nigeria insecure. The second thing I will say to him is, think outside the box, get people who can tell you how we woke up in 2021 with a problem of this magnitude. When you came to power sir, banditry and kidnapping were virtually unknown. Something happened, a large part of the insecurity we are witnessing now has deep roots in history and society and the manner in which governance has been taking place in the last few years. Huge numbers of cattle rustled, injustice, state agents using strong-arm tactics, pushing more and more Fulani into criminality, you need to hear those narratives.
We are not giving excuses to criminal bandits and kidnappers, but you need to understand how it is that these people got converted from just herding cattle to now holding huge territory and threatening the Nigerian state.
So, I will further say to him, shouldn’t you actually sit down with these bandits…to drop their weapons and be reintegrated? Because it doesn’t look like the military option is entirely winning. This is a problem that mutates and they have got the terrain, and we don’t have the military or policemen to protect every school, town or village. So, you must try other options, and those options must accept some level of concession to other ways that have been tried and tested in many parts of the country and the world.
Are you suggesting negotiation and amnesty?
Absolutely! Negotiate with those who are willing to negotiate if the evidence on the ground suggests to you that there are people who are willing to leave the bushes. Negotiation and amnesty are not dirty words, but it must be contingent on a very realistic assessment that can actually mitigate the problem substantially. This is so that you isolate the hardcore that is just interested in banditry and violence and then you throw the weight of the state on them. No one will ever tell you not to fight bandits and kidnappers.
When President Umaru Yar’Adua came into power, Nigeria’s crude export had gone as low as 600,000 barrels and he came with a seven-point agenda and one of them was to fix the insurgency in the Niger Delta, because it was literally crippling the country’s economy. I was then in government and within six months we had signed the amnesty, at great cost to the country, but it worked. So why don’t you apply some political thinking to these kinds of issues. Whatever we do, we mustn’t continue to think that the current strategy of just simply throwing the military at bandits and kidnappers and Boko Haram is going to solve the problem.
Would you subscribe to the approach Sheik Ahmed Gumi?
To be honest, President Buhari should have sat with Gumi. Gumi was a military person, he is a respected sheikh, and when he started saying, “I’ve gone to the bush,” he did it with the knowledge of security agencies. When he said he had information on the root of this problem, on the dimensions and possible solutions, the president should have sat with him. It was possible some of the information he had were so sensitive and might have involved the roles of the very people who are securing this country.
Gumi talks to the press, he is not a politician, he is a clergy, and I’m not sure he can change the way he does things. But he does know things like failure of the military and corruption in the military. People like Gumi are not enemies; they are the kind of people you should cultivate, and it is possible he is saying all these because he doesn’t have a channel to make this very sensitive, important information to you.
What is the role of the governors in all this?
Engage the governors and they will tell you they are powerless because it is a security issue and they don’t have the police and soldiers. The security situation cannot be handled by governors, but the governors can reduce the tendency for more of these Fulani to join banditry. The governors have intelligence sources, if they are serious, they can mitigate it, but they seat back and say, “What can I do?” For instance, they are destroying traditional institutions, they can rebuild traditional institutions and reintroduce time-tested community efforts. They can also identify vulnerable Fulani who have few cattle and are vulnerable to being rustled. Relocate them, land is vested in the governors, create places where the Fulani can be safe. They can actually reengineer social structures and social relationships at the local level that can seriously reduce the tendency of these criminals to feed on, but they are not doing that.